Kobe Bryant

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant handles the ball during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors, Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014, in Ontario, Calif. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

Sports news giant ESPN ran an article earlier this month suggesting that Kobe Bryant has aided the recent decline of the once-proud Los Angeles Lakers. Bryant’s bloated contract, his harsh critiques of teammates and his gradual decline have saddled the Lakers with an unmovable, aging superstar.

Lakers President Jeanie Buss was asked earlier in the week about her opinion on Bryant, and she lambasted reporters with a stern warning. “Any free agent that would be afraid to play with Kobe Bryant is probably a loser, and I’m glad they wouldn’t come to the team,” Buss said in an ESPN televised interview.

Buss’ strong words may fail to take in account the few free agents that the Lakers have whiffed on over the past few years, namely perennial all-star center Dwight Howard, who left after only one season as a Laker. Bryant, who’s scheduled to make roughly $48 million over the next two seasons, will attempt to return to full health after a rough stretch of knee and Achilles injuries over the last two seasons. However, with his injuries, salary and his tendency to demoralize his teammates, is Kobe killing the Lakers? Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley of the AFRO Sports Desk debate the question.

Riley: Kobe Bryant is absolutely killing the Lakers and their franchise. Unfortunately, they’re stuck with him. Bryant’s ruthlessness has grown into a different animal in the later stages of his career. The Lakers haven’t been able to secure a coach prominent enough to put a muzzle on Bryant’s mouth and limit the amount of superhero flashbacks that Bryant often has when he’s chucking 30-plus shots a game. His contract is more of an “I-owe-you-one” rather than anything based upon performance. With the cupboard scarcely bare of talent, the only way for the Lakers to seriously lure dominant players in their prime would be with sizable salaries, but Bryant’s contract makes that task tricky. And with his game in steady decline, the Lakers probably should’ve parted ways with the future Hall of Fame guard years ago. But, as he’s a longtime face of the franchise, they chose to honor their 36-year-old star, and that loyalty is killing them right now.

Green: We’re talking about Kobe as if he’s been this unbearable burden in L.A. But the truth is that Bryant is the only thing keeping the Lakers relevant right now. There are numerous reasons that the Lakers have fallen flat on their faces the last few seasons but Bryant isn’t one of them. Poor drafting and horrendous coaching hires have sabotaged the franchise far worse than Bryant’s contract. Buss’ comments were spot-on, because if any player is unwilling to play for a championship teammate who’s going to critique their games for the better then what’s the point of them coming in the first place? Howard’s ego wasn’t strong enough to handle a leader of Bryant’s caliber trying to mold and shape his game, but that doesn’t mean that Kobe is a locker room killer, especially when Howard’s commitment has been challenged in the past. Kobe’s deserving of every penny the Lakers are paying him. He’s not deserving, however, of the criticism.

Riley: There comes a time in every superstar’s career that he has to sacrifice for the good of the team. Bryant could easily tone down the nastiness with teammates and could’ve easily taken less money. His time on the court over the last two seasons has been scarce while his salary continues to ascend. The talent just isn’t there on the roster to justify spending over 30 percent of the team’s salary to one player. The imbalance is too great for the team to compete fairly, and Bryant’s talent level and court dependency has decreased too dramatically to even try to make sense of. Bryant could surprise and return to a high level this season but even if that scenario plays out, the Lakers will still be a one-man army with little depth among the reserves.

Green: The only thing hurting the Lakers is the lack of resources available to aide Bryant as a No. 2 or No. 3 option. Jeremy Lin and Jordan Hill are the next two highest players on the team behind the recently retired Steve Nash. Julius Randle has the chance to be an impact rookie but let’s not mistake him for the second coming of Tim Duncan. Aside from the lone year with Dwight Howard, who arrived to the Lakers fresh off back surgery, management has failed to put anybody of importance around their lone superstar. There have been worse contracts than Bryant’s $23 million that he’ll make this year for players who weren’t nearly as vital to their team. Kobe Bryant is the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s the one still making them relevant and still putting fans in the stands. There are a lot of things wrong with the Los Angeles Lakers, and it starts with the front office. But Kobe isn’t one of them. He may be a little washed up as player, but he still has enough to contribute. It’s up to that front office to put the right pieces around him.